- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2004

U.S. Capitol Police officials yesterday said officers were wrong to tell two representatives of a small D.C. newspaper that they could not take photographs of security barricades on Capitol Hill.

However, photographing anti-terror measures is cause for questioning, and the officers were right to approach the editor and reporter about their actions, spokeswoman Sgt. Contricia Sellers-Ford said.

“They did a great job,” Sgt. Sellers-Ford said of the Capitol Police officers, who stopped the journalists in separate confrontations Friday. “They did what they were taught to do, and they did it correctly.”

Officers have been rebriefed on proper procedures since Kathryn Sinzinger, editor and publisher of the Common Denominator newspaper, took public her complaint that she and intern reporter Michael Hoffman were “unlawfully detained” and Mr. Hoffman’s camera, film and notebook confiscated.

In an interview yesterday, Mrs. Sinzinger maintained that the officers violated the pair’s First Amendment rights and civil liberties.

“I think [the Capitol Police] are being less than truthful in the way that they are trying to minimize what they did to us,” said Mrs. Sinzinger, whose scrappy Common Denominator is published every other week.

The incidents, which occurred Friday afternoon, caught the attention of Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C. Democrat, who has criticized the tighter security imposed in the District in the past week.

Mrs. Norton, who described the officers’ actions as “shameful” in a Saturday news conference, yesterday said the moves were “a direct result” of security excesses.

“What we’ve done is to trade security for openness,” Mrs. Norton said. “That is an impossible tradeoff that we will not accept in this city.”

Still under dispute is whether Mrs. Sinzinger and Mr. Hoffman, a rising junior at American University, were “detained,” as the editor put it in an online update of her newspaper Friday, or simply interviewed, as Capitol Police maintain.

“‘Detained’ is if a person is under the impression that they cannot leave under their free will,” Sgt. Sellers-Ford said. “That did not happen here. They could have just not provided any information and walked away, and that was advised to both of them.”

But Mrs. Sinzinger said that although an officer told her she was “free to go,” the officer had requested and taken her driver’s license and press credentials after he saw her photographing barricades on First Street Northeast.

When Mrs. Sinzinger asked for her license back, the officer refused for about 15 minutes, she said.

“I asked him again if I was being detained … and he told me, ‘No, you’re free to go,’ and I said, ‘Then can I have my driver’s license back?’ But he wouldn’t give it back to me,” she said.

Sgt. Sellers-Ford said she had no comment on those details.

Mrs. Sinzinger contends Mr. Hoffman’s rights were violated in an interrogation that lasted nearly an hour, and that officers also did not return her reporter’s driver’s license until it was “checked out.”

Officers gave back the reporter’s notebook within a half hour, but did not return his disposable camera, according to the newspaper’s online report. In that account, Mr. Hoffman said he signed a consent form allowing police to seize his camera “because I was worried and didn’t know what to do.”

Capitol Police turned over a set of prints and the negatives to Mrs. Sinzinger about 7:30 p.m., some three hours later. Police retained copies of the photos over her objections.

Mr. Hoffman could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Sgt. Sellers-Ford said Mr. Hoffman was approached by a Capitol Police officer in the 200 block of First Street after the officer saw him taking pictures.

When the college student could not provide press credentials, she said, officers interviewed him, eventually asking Mr. Hoffman to empty his pockets and turn over his camera, notebook and Social Security number.

Mr. Hoffman “piqued officers’ interest” when they noticed “a series of inconsistencies in his story,” Sgt. Sellers-Ford said.

“During part of an interview, officers tend to ask the same questions, but in a different way,” she said. “He wasn’t answering them consistently.”

Inconsistency is a pattern of behavior that could help officers distinguish terrorist surveillance from harmless photography, Sgt. Sellers-Ford said. Other behaviors include repeated questioning about security procedures, she said.

“Michael was scared,” Mrs. Sinzinger retorted. “He is a summer intern. He is not an experienced journalist.”

The run-ins illustrate a tension between police on the lookout for terrorists and residents who don’t want their civil liberties violated as they go about their daily lives.

Capitol Police officers have worked 12-hour days six days a week since Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge raised the terror alert to Code Orange on Aug. 1.

After the September 11 attacks, Capitol Police classified the photographing of buildings and security measures as suspicious. Recent intelligence reports detailing the extent of al Qaeda’s surveillance of financial institutions in the District, New York and New Jersey only increased the urgency of “making contacts” with anyone spotted photographing buildings, Sgt. Sellers-Ford said.

“I mean, we do respect [Mrs. Sinzinger’s concerns]. We’re not violating anyone’s rights,” Sgt. Sellers-Ford said. “But at the same time, we’re trying to keep all the visitors, members of Congress and … ourselves safe. And it’s a difficult task.”

She declined to say whether Capitol Police have received other reports of purported civil liberties violations.

“We’ve got to get control of Terry Gainer, because obviously this comes from the top,” Mrs. Norton said of Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer.

Mrs. Norton said she will cite the incidents in a meeting today with D.C. and Capitol Police officials.

Chief Gainer is away on vacation, she said, but she expects to meet with his deputy, as well as the sergeants-at-arms of the House and the Senate. The District’s police, fire, transportation and emergency medical chiefs and the city administrator also were expected.

Mrs. Sinzinger planned to detail the incidents and her dissatisfaction in a front-page editorial in her newspaper this morning.

“You tell me what the motive is of any police officers on a public payroll who doesn’t tell the truth to the public,” she said in the interview. “If this was done for our protection, why can’t they at least tell the truth?”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide